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The Plot Thickens

Learning opportunities abound in Otterbein’s community garden

As it’s part of an educational institution, it’s only fitting that the community garden at Otterbein University is more than just a place for growing produce – it’s also a place for growing minds.

The garden, located on Spring Road, is used for a variety of educational purposes, including programs and classes in Westerville City Schools. This is the fourth year the garden has been in place.

Various community partners have plots in the three-quarter-acre garden, which is operated by an advisory council under Otterbein’s Center for Community Engagement. The partners include neighborhood associations, veterans’ groups, immigrant communities, senior living communities and Girl Scout troops, in addition to the schools.

The school district was the only organization to use the garden in 2010, its first year. Melissa Gilbert, director of the Center for Community Engagement, sees students engaging in a variety of learning activities, from standard planting and composting to scientific experiments and mineral lessons.

“The kids … are doing all kinds of educational (activities), from soil sampling to understanding different kinds of plants to looking at food insecurity,” Gilbert says.

One of the biggest school programs is Service Oriented Integrated Learning (SOIL), an activity for middle school students coordinated by Heritage Middle School math and science teacher Marty Wicks and Genoa Middle School math teacher Liz Stimer. Wicks handles morning students; Stimer handles afternoon students.

Students have planned the garden’s area and perimeter, determined how deep to plant various seeds, ascertained the necessary distance between plants, researched climate zones and growing conditions, compared components of soil and dirt, tested soil, related items to the periodic table, learned to handle water runoff, followed vines to find the bases of plants, and written in journals about their experiences. One addition this year is an outdoor camera set up for time-lapse photography that will put the entire summer’s growing into a short video.

Students have grown corn, watermelons, honeydew melons, pumpkins, butternut squash, hot peppers, bell peppers, radishes, carrots, sweet potatoes, cabbage, herbs and all manner of tomatoes. All produce from SOIL goes to the Westerville Area Resource Ministry.

Stimer has also organized students into “families” during the school year and challenged them to balance household budgets, teaching them about the importance of institutions like W.A.R.M. that provide assistance for families in financial trouble.

“Service learning is not just about saying to a kid, ‘Hey, you’re going to go put in three hours at the garden today,” says Stimer. “It has to be something that they care about.”

Outside of SOIL, there are many ways for curriculum to incorporate the garden space. For instance, Stimer will use the garden to supplement instruction in her math classes – figuring percentages related to garden space, converting units of measurement, drawing up scale models, graphing plants’ rates of growth.

Other teachers have had students use items from the garden for art projects, conduct a mock archeological dig there and plant mums for Mother’s Day.

In addition to garden space, the university often lends instructors– faculty members and Otterbein students will teach Westerville students about food insecurity, water usage, earth sciences, plant identification and more. The garden is also incorporated into a number of Otterbein’s youth summer camps.

Much of the garden’s produce goes to food pantries. In order to obtain a free, 20-by-20-foot plot, a group must pledge a portion of its produce to a food pantry in the Westerville area. Many choose W.A.R.M., which provides lists of items its clients need and use.

Garth Bishop is editor of Westerville Magazine. Feedback welcome at gbishop@cityscenemediagroup.com.


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